Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban bans gender studies programmes

'I do not know what the animosity will be from other people in Hungary if they find out I’m studying gender studies,' says student affected by ban

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Thursday 25 October 2018 14:17 BST
Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

Hungary‘s far-right prime minister has banned gender studies programmes at universities – with his deputy arguing the area of study is an ideology rather than a science.

Viktor Orban, who has rejected the EU’s vision of liberal democracy, issued a decree to revoke accreditation and funding for gender studies programmes at the two universities that provide them in the central European country earlier in October.

“The government’s standpoint is that people are born either male or female, and we do not consider it acceptable for us to talk about socially constructed genders rather than biological sexes,” a spokesman for the prime minister said.

Amelie, who is lined up to do the gender studies course at Hungary’s prestigious Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, said she was dismayed the course had been banned.

“Last week, I met with one of my professors who said, ‘Bad luck for you, I have just seen that they have cancelled the programme’,” the 25-year-old told The Independent.

“I am very disappointed. It seems sad that professors will no longer share their tool set in gender and queer theory with students and are going to leave.”

The Londoner, who did not want her last name used, is currently doing a two-year masters in Women’s and Gender Studies.

The student – currently at Utrecht University in the Netherlands – said it was not yet clear whether she would do her masters in Hungary or whether the course would already have been pulled.

“There is a chance I go next year and be part of the last year,” she said. ”We have not had a definitive answer about what will happen, but some of the lecturers might leave before then or have been fired. I worry how chaotic it would be and I do not know what the animosity will be from other people in Hungary if they find out I’m studying gender studies.”

“My lecturers at Utrecht are very upset about it all. We have close ties with the other gender studies departments internationally and within Europe. When you are teaching a course that has been demonised or thought less of, there is a feeling of sticking together. It is frightening for other departments as they hope there will not be a domino effect.

It is frightening for other departments as they hope there will not be a domino effect 

Amelie, student 

“This is terrible for me, but it’s a lot worse for people in Hungary, especially because this is just one of many freedoms taken away from people there.”

She argued gender studies was an imperative discipline of academia – saying it was particularly pertinent to study in the context of Hungary’s recent lurch to the right.

“We live in a world that privileges the research of white men – as historically it is them who have done the research – and we need other voices to understand the power structures of our current society. I think that studying gender fosters an understanding of others rather than a fear.”

Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen has said gender studies “has no business in universities” because it is “an ideology, not a science”.

“In solidarity with Hungarian colleagues, we oppose this latest infringement on academic autonomy in the country,” the Central European University Department of Gender Studies said in a statement.

“In the face of political moves, such as this recent decision that mischaracterises and questions the academic legitimacy of Gender Studies, we stress that the concept of gender – as a fundamental component of the human experience – has proven its importance in and across many areas of academic research.”

The CEU is one of two universities in Hungary that offers gender studies programmes. The school branded the decree “a significant loss to the Hungarian scholarly community and for democratically-minded public policymakers”.

The school was founded by American billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros – a long-standing critic of Mr Orban’s right-wing government who has been a long-time champion of groups promoting liberal, democratic and open-border values in eastern Europe.

Mr Orban, who has rejected the EU’s vision of liberal democracy and been accused of antisemitism, has made the Hungary-born Jewish philanthropist a frequent victim of political campaigns.

Around 100,000 Jews live in Hungary, but antisemitism remains a recurring problem in the country.

The ban has exacerbated concerns about the direction Hungary is taking. Last month, the European Parliament voted to punish Mr Orban for cracking down on democratic institutions in Hungary – including the press and academia.

The far right has become increasingly emboldened in the country as anti-migrant sentiment has swelled. Mr Orban’s government strengthened Hungary’s southern border in 2015 against an influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa into the EU.

Earlier in the month, a constitutional amendment which bans people from living in public areas came into force in Hungary in spite of criticism from campaigners. The revision hands police the power to issue warnings to anyone seen living on the streets.

Penalties for homeless people who receive four warnings within 90 days include jail time or up to six months in a public works programme. Courts declared an earlier attempt by Mr Orban’s government to outlaw homelessness to be unconstitutional.

Hungary’s controversial government originally proposed banning gender programmes in August.

The Political Studies Association said the decree “calls into question the Hungarian government’s commitment to the principles of democracy, which are the bedrock of European states”.

“Gender Studies is an integral part of understanding the complexities of social interaction, the impact of policy, the dynamics of the economy and the extent of abuse of personal and political power,” the organisation, which supports social science research, said in August.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in